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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters Life!) - To give thanks to a powerful god for blessing him with a longed-for daughter, Sharma Muthu will skewer his tongue with a spear for Malaysia's largest Hindu festival.
The government official will be one of many thousands who will go into a trance and pierce their bodies with hooks and spears to honor Lord Murugan, the god of war and fertility, at his limestone cave temple in the Malaysian capital next Thursday.
"I have five sons and I always wanted a daughter. No medicine could have helped me in this so I turned to the god and put my faith in him. Now I must repay this miracle," Muthu said after he offered prayers at the Batu Caves shrine ahead of the festival.
Malaysians are increasingly seeking spiritual aid from an assortment of gods and faith healers to solve personal problems in this mostly-Muslim but multi-religious Southeast Asia nation.
The Thaipusam festival, which originated in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and was introduced to Malaysia in the 19th century by immigrant Indian estate workers, reflects a growing faith in the Hindu god's power to bless devotees with children and cure serious illnesses.
Thaipusam is no longer widely celebrated in India but in Malaysia the festival has gone beyond the ethnic Indian community that is less than a tenth of the country's 28 million people.
In 2008, the government had to declare it a public holiday to give devotees time off to perform the thanksgiving rituals.
In preparation for the festival, Muthu fasts for 48 days and abstains from sex. On the day itself, he will shave his head, smear sandalwood all over his body and listen to priests chanting mantras until he falls into a trance, when his tongue will be pierced with the 18 cm (7 inch) spear.
"There will be no pain, no bleeding once I am in the trance and they will pierce my tongue. Medical doctors have not been able to explain this and so we have to take this a sign of the god's power and our own faith," Muthu said.
"With that spear in my tongue, I will climb those 272 stairs to the temple and pray to Lord Murugan. Only then will the spear be removed and my debt be repaid."
Last year, over one million people of different ethnic backgrounds trekked up to Batu Caves temple to repay the god for granting requests as diverse as achieving top marks in exams and bagging a new job to resolving family feuds.
Many balanced brass pots of milk on their heads while others carried wooden floats, or kavadi, decorated with the peacock feathers and spears that symbolize the deity.
The bigger the requests, the more elaborate the ritual offerings. For recovering from a serious illness or surviving a serious accident, some devotees will pierce their bodies with hooks holding oranges, lemons and apples.
Couples who say they were able to conceive after praying to Lord Murugan will carry their newborns in a cradle made of saffron cloth and sugarcane stalks up to the temple for blessing.
For some, repaying the god becomes a lifelong endeavor. Saroja Maniam turned to making kavadis for worshippers after she finally gave birth to daughter after years of trying.
"I think I can never repay the god for what he has given but I can make some contribution by creating kavadis for people to show their faith," said Saroja, who has been selling kavadis for more than 30 years at a makeshift shop near the temple.
"When I first started, I would make just a handful but now I get 200 to 300 orders for Thaipusam and it will grow as more and more people will find they can get their prayers answered."
Editing by Elaine Lies